BDSM is a catch-all phase used to describe an interest in a number of related patterns of human sexual behavior including sadomasochism, power exchange or bondage. Strictly speaking, fetishism is not part of BDSM, but fetish imagery is very common in visual depiction of BDSM activities.
The major sub-groupings are described in the abbreviation “BDSM” itself:
bondage & discipline (B&D)
Domination & submission (D&S, DS, D/S)
sadism & masochism (or sadomasochism) (S&M, SM)
To someone outside of the fetish / BDSM scene it might appear to be a very homogeneous group of people and it may even seem to be a paraphilia. This is not necessarily the case however. The stimulus that brings on the sexual arousal in an individual will vary from person to person. For one person objectification and sexual humiliation might be a huge turn on whilst the thought of being caned by a dominant does nothing to them at all. For another person the reverse might be the case.
This emphasis on informed consent and safety is also known as SSC (safe, sane and consensual), though others prefer RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink), which places the emphasis more on informed consent, and acknowledges that all activities are potentially risky.
In the past, sadomasochistic activities and fantasies were regarded by most psychiatrists as pathological, but have been regarded as increasingly acceptable since at least the 1990s. Indeed, the DSM-IV asserts that “The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviours” must “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” in order for sexual sadism or masochism to be considered a disorder. People who practice BDSM tend to reject the view of their activities as disordered.
The term power exchange is associated with a submissive exchanging his/her authority to make decisions (either just for a scene, or for his/her entire life) for the dominant’s agreement to take responsibility for his/her happiness and health.
The nature of the power exchange varies greatly and can be explicitly negotiated or implicit in the consensuality of the relationship.
A submissive person is one who submits of their own free will and seeks to submit to another. This can be in the context of play times within a set scene, totally immersed within a power exchange relationship or anywhere in between.
A dominant person enjoys being with a submissive person, either just during a scene or as a way of life. Reasons for this include a desire for personal power; being the object of devotion; having the resources and abilities of another human at their disposal; sadism.
Some practitioners of BDSM enjoy switching — that is, playing both dominant and submissive roles, either during a single scene or taking on different roles at different occasions with different partners. A switch will be the top on some occasions and the bottom on other occasions. A ‘switch’ may be in a relationship with someone of the same primary orientation (two dominants, say), so switching provides each partner with an opportunity to realise his or her unsatisfied BDSM needs with others.
Some BDSM activities may be potentially dangerous if proper precautions are neglected. One aspect to make sure safety is to agree upon a safeword. If the Dominant and submissive are in a scene that causes unacceptable discomfort for one or both, a safe word can be uttered to warn the Dominant of trouble and immediately call for a stop to the scene.
Adequate care is prudent in bondage to ensure safety from injury. For activities involving bodily fluids, hygienic precautions should be duly considered for avoiding the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Many of the specific practises in BDSM are those which, if performed in neutral or nonsexual contexts, are widely considered unpleasant, undesirable, or disadvantageous. For example, pain, physical restraint and servitude are traditionally inflicted on persons against their will and to their detriment. In BDSM, however, these activities are engaged in with the mutual consent of the participants, and typically for mutual enjoyment.
BDSM may encompass practices such as erotic spanking, flagellation, such as flogging, paddling or whipping, or medical submission (i.e. a submissive partner submits to humiliating and/or painful medical procedures).
BDSM activities are practised by male and female individuals of all sexualities: gay or straight, or bisexual, as well as the transgendered. Many practise their BDSM activities exclusively in private, and do not share their predilections with others. Others socialize with other BDSM practitioners. The BDSM community can be regarded as a subculture within mainstream society. Being involved in BDSM or Dominant/submissive relationships is often referred to as being “in the lifestyle”.
Some sources estimate the prevalence of BDSM behaviour in countries such as the United States at around 5 to 10% of the adult population. While the stereotype of heterosexual BDSM is a male dominant and female submissive, the reality is almost evenly split between “maledom” and “femdom” couples.
On a physical level, BDSM “sensation play” often involves inflicting pain, even if without real injury. This releases endorphins, creating a sensation somewhat like runner’s high or the afterglow of orgasm, sometimes called “flying”, which some find enjoyable. Some writers use the term “body stress”. This experience is the motivation for many in the BDSM community but is not the only motivating factor. Indeed, a strong minority of BDSM participants (especially ‘bottoms’) may well take part in a scene they do not derive any physical pleasure from in order to provide their ‘top’ with an opportunity to indulge their desires or fetishes.
In some kinds of BDSM play, the ‘top’ (usually a dominant partner) applies sensation to the ‘bottom’ (usually a submissive partner) by spanking, slapping, pinching, stroking or scratching with fingernails, or using implements like straps, whips, paddles, canes, knives, hot wax, ice, clothespins, bamboo skewers, etc. The sensation of being bound with rope, chains, straps, cling wrap, handcuffs or other materials can also be part of the experience. The tools of BDSM play encompass a variety of items from specifically designed implements to ordinary household items, known as “pervertibles”.
A pleasurable BDSM experience is thought to depend greatly upon a competent top and the bottom attaining the correct state of mind. Trust and sexual arousal help a person prepare for the intense sensation. Some have even gone so far as to compare adept BDSM play to musical composition and performance, each sensation like a musical note. Likewise, different sensations are combined in different ways to produce the total experience.
BDSM may or may not involve sex of any kind.
BDSM may or may not involve sexual roleplaying.
BDSM may or may not involve ageplay.
How dominant or submissive a person may be in their regular life does not always determine their preferred role in BDSM play though many people do manifest these tendencies. Often people who express one role in their regular life, such as at work, strongly desire to express the opposite role within their sexual life, as a kind of release.
BDSM play often includes the psychological pleasure of fetishes.
Some BDSM players are polyamorous, or are sexually monogamous but engage in non-sexual play with others.
A couple may engage in BDSM sexually, and otherwise have a completely normal relationship.
When there is abuse in the relationship, the submissive is as likely to be abusive as the dominant.
See List of BDSM terms
There are many historical precursors to BDSM; however, the modern BDSM movement (in the sense of the coming together of those with various different alternative interests into one common mutually-supportive pan-fetish movement) didn’t fully take shape until the 1980s, while the term “BDSM” itself was apparently not invented until ca. 1990 (the earliest surviving use of this term in the Google Groups archives of the alt.sex.bondage Usenet group dates from June 1991).
There are anecdotal reports of people willingly being bound or whipped as a prelude to, or substitute for, sex going back to the fourteenth century. The medieval phenomenon of courtly love in all of its slavish devotion and ambivalence has been suggested by some writers to be a precursor of BDSM. Some sources claim that BDSM as a distinct form of sexual behaviour originated at the beginning of the eighteenth century when Western civilisation began medically and legally categorising sexual behaviour. Other sources give a broader definition citing BDSM-like behaviour in earlier times and other cultures, such as the medieval flagellants and the physical ordeal rituals of some Native American societies.
Although the names of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch are attached to the terms sadism and masochism respectively, the question remains as to whether their ways of life would meet with modern BDSM standards of informed consent.
BDSM ideas and imagery have existed on the fringes of Western culture throughout the twentieth century. Some of the key artists were John Willie and Eric Stanton. Robert Bienvenu attributes the origins of modern BDSM to three sources, which he names as “European Fetish” (from 1928), “American Fetish” (from 1934), and “Gay Leather” (from 1950). Another source is the sexual games played in brothels, which go back into the nineteenth century if not earlier.
There are ideas that much of the BDSM ethos can be traced back to gay male leather culture, which grew out of post-WWII biker culture. This subculture is epitomised by the Leatherman’s Handbook by Larry Townsend, published in 1972, which essentially defined the “Old Guard leather” culture. This code emphasised strict formality and fixed roles (i.e. no switching), and did not really include lesbian women or heterosexuals. In 1981, however, the publication of Coming to Power by Samois led to a greater knowledge and acceptance of BDSM in the lesbian community.
In the mid-nineties, the Internet provided a way of finding people with specialised interests around the world and communicating with them anonymously. This brought about an explosion of interest and knowledge of BDSM, particularly on theusenet group alt.sex.bondage. When that group became too choked with spam, the focus moved to soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm.
New Guard leather subculture appeared around this time.
BDSM and fetish imagery has spread out into the mainstream of Western culture through avant-garde fashion, the Gothic subculture, rap, hip-hop and heavy metal music, video clips, and science fiction television and movies.
The modern BDSM subculture is widespread. Most major cities in North America and western Europe have clubs and play parties, as well as informal, low-pressure gatherings called munches. There are also conventions like Living in Leather,TESfest and Black Rose, as well as the annual Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco.
The Leather Pride Flag is a symbol used by the leather community or subculture.
BDSM and feminism
Many feminists have criticised sadomasochism/BDSM for eroticising power and violence, and for reinforcing misogyny (Rubin, 1984). They argue that women who choose to engage in BDSM are making a choice that is ultimately bad for women (often without distinguishing between maledom and femdom). Some radical feminists suggest connections between consensual BDSM scenes and non-consensual rape and sexual assault.
Sex-positive feminists argue that consensual BDSM activities are enjoyed by some women and validate the sexual inclinations of these women. They argue that feminists should not attack other women’s sexual desires as being “anti-feminist”, and that there is no connection between consensual sexually kinky activities and sex crimes. Sex-positive feminists find suggestions of links between consensual and non-consensual behaviour to be insulting to women. It is often mentioned that in BDSM, roles aren’t fixed to gender, but to personal preferences.
The legal situation of sadomasochistic activities varies greatly between countries. In Japan, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, consensual BDSM is legal. In other countries it is an example of a consensual crime.
At least in the western, industrialised countries and Japan, since the 1980s sadomasochists have begun to form information exchange and support groups to counter the discriminatory image held by orthodox science and parts of the public. This has happened independently in the USA and in several European countries. With the advent of the web, international cooperation has started to develop – for example Datenschlag is a joint effort of sadomasochists in the three major German-speaking countries, and the mailing list Schlagworte uses the model of a news agency to connect six countries.
Documentaries about BDSM
SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, a documentary about the life of Bob Flanagan
Fetishes by Nick Broomfield
BDSM Alternative Loving by Open Book Communications
Kink Canadian documentary TV series
References and further reading
Pat Califia. Sensuous Magic. New York, Masquerade Books, 1993. ISBN 1-56333-131-4
Gloria G. Brame, William D. Brame, and Jon Jacobs. Different Loving: An Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission Villard Books, New York, 1993. ISBN 0-679-40873-8
Anita Phillips, A Defence of Masochism, Faber 1999.
Jay Wiseman, SM 101: A Realistic Introduction, Greenery Press, 2000. ISBN 0963976389.
Philip Miller, Molly Devon, Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns: The Romance and Sexual Sorcery of Sadomasochism, Mystic Rose Books, 1995. ISBN 0964596008.
Gloria G. Brame, Come Hither : A Commonsense Guide To Kinky Sex, Fireside, 2000. ISBN 0684854627.
William A. Henkin, Sybil Holiday, Consensual Sadomasochism : How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely, Daedalus, 1996. ISBN 1881943127.
Robert Bienvenu, The Development of Sadomasochism as a Cultural Style in the Twentieth-Century United States, 2003, available in PDF format at http://www.americanfetish.net/
London Fetish Scene
BDSM Personals and Community on Bondage.com
BDSM vs. Abuse
Jan Geerinck’s Comprehensive page on BDSM and sadomasochism
Deconstructing myths by Andrea Beckmann, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 8(2) (2001) 66-95
D/s Lifestyle resources.
Norman Breslow’s SM Research Report, v1.1
Society for Human Sexuality
soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm newsgroup FAQ
uk.people.bdsm newsgroup FAQ
The Beginners Guide to BDSM
Slave musings BDSM in the context of M/s and TPE